Back in Top 25, No.23 Arizona looks for big finish
The media didn't seem to care that the Wildcats were coming off their best season in a decade, capped by a Las Vegas Bowl victory over No. 17 Brigham Young. Reporters projected Arizona to finish ahead of only Washington and Washington State, which went a combined 2-23 in 2008.
"I texted guys on the team and told them, 'We've got to get our stuff together, because even though we went to a bowl last year and beat a ranked team, they're still not going to respect us,' " Nelson recalled this week. "We didn't make too much fuss about it in the paper or anything - no bulletin-board material. But we thought about it a lot."
A certain amount of media skepticism was understandable, because Arizona hasn't pieced together consecutive winning seasons since 1997-98. The poll also reflected doubt that the Wildcats could withstand the departure of quarterback Willie Tuitama, the most decorated passer in school history.
Two months later, the 23rd-ranked Wildcats have flipped the eighth-place prediction upside-down. They're one of three teams - No. 4 USC and No. 10 Oregon are the others - who control their own destiny in what might be the nation's toughest conference.
Arizona (5-2, 3-1 Pac-10) has also cracked The Associated Press Top 25 for the first time since Oct. 22, 2000, a span of 104 games.
It's heady stuff on a campus known for national excellence in men's basketball, softball and swimming and diving but mostly for mediocrity in football. Arizona is the only Pac-10 or Big Ten member that has not played in the Rose Bowl game - but that will change if the Wildcats sweep their last five games.
"They've been one of the really pleasant surprises in the conference this year," Pac-10 commissioner Larry Scott said in a telephone interview. "It's thrilling to have them in the mix and have them in the dialogue in the Pac-10 and nationally."
With a grueling stretch run ahead, Rose Bowl talk is premature. It was downright preposterous when coach Mike Stoops arrived after the 2003 season and set about resurrecting a 2-10 program.
Stoops went 3-8, 3-8 and 6-6 in his first three years, and he was rumored to be on his way out after a 2-6 start in 2007. But the Wildcats won three of their last four that season, then went 8-5 last year, and Stoops was rewarded with a three-year contract extension.
The Wildcats are off this week, which gives them a chance to bask in the attention that the ranking has brought.
"Handling some prosperity is something relatively new for us," Stoops said. "I don't see this team changing. You have to embrace it and want more, and I think that's what we're establishing within this program.
"We have five games left," he said. "We want to be there in the end, not in the middle."
Strangely, the latest ranking came after the Wildcats' worst offensive performance - a five-turnover fiasco in a 27-13 victory over UCLA, winless in the Pac-10. And that came one week after Stanford shredded the Wildcats' defense in a 43-38 Arizona victory.
Those victories may be the most telling signs of the program's revival under Stoops. In the past, Arizona needed to play well in all phases to win. Now, the Wildcats are strong enough - and deep enough - to overcome a poor showing by one unit.
They've also had to overcome injuries. Their best player, tight end Rob Gronkowski, is out for the season with a strained back. Tailbacks Nic Grigsby and Greg Nwoko have been slowed by shoulder sprains, and star defensive end Brooks Reed has missed three games with a sprained ankle.
The turning point in the season came when Stoops replaced struggling quarterback Matt Scott with Nick Foles, who ranks third in Pac-10 passing efficiency after four career starts. Foles played superbly until last Saturday, when he battled the flu and had a hand in all five turnovers against UCLA.
"I don't think there's anything to be alarmed about," Stoops said of Foles.
Foles will have to return to his earlier form if the Wildcats hope to remain in contention.
They wrap up a three-game homestand against last-place Washington State on Nov. 7, and a victory would make them bowl-eligible. Last year, earning a bowl berth was cause for celebration. Not this year.
"We don't want to just be bowl-eligible and not win out," Nelson said. "As far as a specific bowl, we haven't talked about any one. We want to go somewhere big, I'll just put it like that."
The Wildcats' holiday destination will be determined in their last four games. Arizona visits California, plays host to Oregon and closes the regular season with games at arch rival Arizona State and USC.
The combined record of those opponents: 21-7.
"Hopefully our best football's in front of us," Stoops said. "It's going to need to be."